Catholic Activity: Character Training in School
Mary Newland discusses the importance of character training in school, by reinforcing and teaching the virtues of responsibility, honesty, silence, and charity at home.
Responsibility is a manifold duty. Not only must a child try to see his schoolmates as other Christs, with the obligation to love them, but he must also see that he has a responsibility to give good example to the individuals as well as the group. By his obedience he will help the entire group be obedient. By his silence he will help the group be silent. By his courtesy and co-operation the group profits. He must defend the weaker ones when they need defending, and give praise freely for the talents and good work of the others. This is, indeed, a "hard saying." But the beauty of early childhood is that the virtues are admired. It is only after bad habits have glazed over the first willingness to be good that children begin to scorn goody-goodies. Often such scorn is the clearest indication that a child envies the virtues of the good, the accepted ones. This is very evident in adult society. No one has a corner on goodness. We can help our children by giving them, in the beginning, really stiff ideals to live up to, but ideals warm with the example of Christ, the beauty of His personality.
Responsibility also means that we must take care of school property, and make restitution as far as we are able for any damage we have caused.
"Mother, will you please write a note to the librarian and explain about the library book?"
But Mother did not let the baby get the library book, someone else did; so Mother would not write a note. The only course was to pray for the grace to admit full responsibility to the librarian and ask what could be done to make up for it. It ended up with allowance money spent to replace the ruined book, and much respect for library books ever since! Insignificant as these experiences seem to be, once the fear of facing up to responsibility has been conquered, honesty is never quite that difficult again. These are very small things perhaps, but they are the making of integrity.
Silence in the classroom can be directly related to the silence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Silence is really terribly hard, but the efforts to be silent for His sake, to join Him in the poignant silence of the Tabernacle, will be repaid — who knows with what riches of grace? And perhaps in the struggle there will be the first intimation to a child of the sweetness of silence, which one day he must learn to love if God is to speak to him.
Honesty in school means many things. It means not cheating, neither telling answers nor asking questions when you are not supposed to. It means telling the truth always to the teacher as well as to your fellows. It means never taking anything that does not belong to you, and knowing that things one "finds" are to be given to the teacher to dispose of. And it means doing all these things in order not to sin, not just because this is the nice way to be. Our Lord bade his Apostles have such a love for truth that they should not swear by anything on earth or in Heaven, but merely speak the truth with a simple Yes or No.
"God is there with you in school, too, dear. Even if you could fool the teacher, you could not fool Him. When you pray to the Holy Spirit for help in your work, remember that He is the Spirit of Truth. You cannot expect His help if you are not going to be loyal to truth."
Again, if we can remember to teach our children to pray for the grace to be honest, the Spirit of Truth will strengthen them before each trial. Answering an invitation to be dishonest with, "No, it's a sin," helps them grow stronger in their conviction of sin, and is one of the obligations of correction St. Paul pointed out to his newly made Christians.
But there are obligations in charity which forbid our publicizing the dishonesty of others. Children will sit in judgment constantly over the actions of classmates and bring many a long tale home about who swipes rulers and pencils and does mischief and then blames it on "me." There are delicate problems involved and the greatest service we can do is to help our children look with charity upon the weaknesses of their friends. If someone has a yen for stealing pencils, it is best not to leave any pencils around for him to steal. Our own carelessness may be a temptation for him. If someone has selected us as his pet "goat," we can ask Our Lord for the grace to bear what abuse he dishes out, and only when it is beyond endurance, tell the teacher. Tattling is not the only thing to do with difficulties on the playground or in the classroom. But unless we show our children how to handle them, how to concern themselves for the souls of their tormentors, it is the only thing they know how to do. Our Lord's words about doing good to our enemies are just as effective in the schoolyard as they are anywhere else, and most of the disagreeable characters in this world respond to kindness and love. Many a child will become intrigued by the idea of trying to be nicer than ever to persons who are mean to them — just to see if it "works." It almost always does. Reading the Gospels and Epistles at home, with an eye to discover solutions to social problems at school, can become an exciting chase, and in the bargain we are teaching our children to look to the right source for their guidance all through life.
For instance, in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul poses a real challenge:
Now we that are stronger, ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of you please his neighbor unto good, to edification, for Christ did not please himself. . . .(15:1-3)
Just these few lines pose a whole new attack on "stinky old So-and-So." "Stinky" usually turns out to be a pretty good guy after all, after he's had a chance to see that you really want to be his friend.
"Know what? He's not so bad. I didn't used to like him, but I do now."
Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961